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The Top 5 Countries for Medical Travel

Experts project the international market for medical travel to explode in the coming years as more Americans and others, fed up with high costs and long wait times, seek everything from knee and hip replacements to bypass surgeries. Here’s a look at the five countries best poised to ride the wave.

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Singapore

JCI-accredited hospitals*: 13

Specialties: cardiac, fertility and reproductive, neurology and spine, orthopedic, oncology, weight treatment, wellness/alternative therapy

Cost of heart-bypass surgery**: $18,500 (U.S. cost: $130,000 or more)

More than 410,000 international patients visited Singapore in 2006, a testament to the glittering island metropoliss significant efforts to establish itself as a hub for medical travel. Singapores health system, ranked sixth in the world by the World Health Organization in 2000, consistently earns high marks in international surveys. Its biggest problem? Not enough patients, which a government-industry consortium hopes to remedy by attracting one million foreign patients a year by 2012. Obesity surgery is Singapores forte.

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Thailand

JCI-accredited hospitals: 4

Specialties: cardiac, cosmetic and plastic surgery, dentistry, fertility and reproductive health, neurology and spine, orthopedic, oncology, sex change and cosmetic, weight treatment

Cost of heart-bypass surgery: $11,000

Thailand, which began opening its doors to foreign patients more than a decade ago, is a pioneer in the field of medical travel. In 2006, Thailands hospitals welcomed more than 400,000 international visitors, no doubt enticed by costs that can reach less than 10 percent of those in the United States. The countrys medical travel flagship is the mammoth Bumrungrad Hospital, the largest private clinic in the world at more than a million square feet and chock full of doctors with every specialty you can imagine. And of course, Bangkok is the place to go if you need a sex-change operation or just standard breast implants.

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India

JCI-accredited hospitals: 10

Specialties: cardiovascular, cosmetic, dental care, general surgery, ophthalmology, orthopedics, transplants, weight loss

Cost of heart-bypass surgery: $10,000

Indias healthcare system as a whole may be a national embarrassment, but its high-end facilities rank among the best in the world. And with a surplus of qualified medical personnel and a demonstrated penchant for attracting insourcing in other fields, India sees itself as a potential leader in the medical travel business and especially for heart surgery. The South Asian country certainly has the volume business locked up: One hospital in Bangalore performed more than 14,000 cardiac surgeries from 2001 to 2005, and overall the country welcomed 450,000 foreign patients in 2007.

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United Arab Emirates

JCI-accredited hospitals: 14

Specialties: cardiovascular, dermatology, orthopedic, oncology

Cost of heart-bypass surgery: $44,000 (includes valve replacement)

The Emirates are a latecomer to the medical travel game, but, as in every other field, they are catching up fast. A full 13 UAE hospitals have received JCI accreditation in the past 3 years, and the emirate of Dubai is teaming up with Harvard Medical School to operate Dubai Healthcare City, a 435-acre Mecca for healthcare aimed at competing with low-cost centers across Asia. A major motivation for the initiative is to encourage the UAEs wealthy citizens to stay at home for medical treatment and, of course, the all-important breast enlargements and tummy tucks. But Guy Ellena, an expert at the World Bank Group, cautions that Dubais high prices will probably deter most others.

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Malaysia

JCI-accredited hospitals: 1

Specialties: cardiovascular, cosmetic, dental care, fertility and reproductive health, general surgery, ophthalmology, orthopedics, transplants

Cost of heart-bypass surgery: $9,000

Malaysia is a potential diamond in the rough, especially when it comes to its specialty, knee surgery. In 2007, more than 340,000 people visited the Southeast Asian island nation for medical procedures, most of them from Indonesia and Singapore, as well as Bangladesh, Australia, New Zealand, the Middle East, and Japan. Cheaper than Singapore, India, or Thailand, Malaysia is probably the international medical communitys best-kept secret, according to medical travel expert Josef Woodman.

*JCI refers to Joint Commission International, a non-profit organization whose accreditation has become the international gold standard for the quality and safety of health facilities.

**Data on treatment costs and international visitors comes from two sources: Patients Beyond Borders, a 2007 guidebook for would-be medical tourists by Josef Woodman, and Medical Tourism: Consumers in Search of Value, a 2008 report by Deloitte Consulting.

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